The last few decades in American literature and culture reflect just how impossible it is to define those elements without Mexican American writers and artists.
If I had to identify one and only one work of American literature from the 1980s to which we American Studiers can and should continue to turn—a ridiculous hypothetical, of course, but nonetheless the kind of question that can crystallize our analytical preferences—I would go with Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (1984). I would do so in part for literary reasons: Cisneros uses the complex form of a short story cycle, a group of distinct but interconnected short fictional works, as well as it has ever been used; she likewise creates with stunning ease the evolving narrative voice of a young girl over a period of many years of her life. But the book also engages in profoundly compelling depth with a host of crucial American conversations about identity, nearly all captured in the five-paragraph story “My Name”: multigenerational familial and cultural heritages and influences on an individual; bilingual and multicultural experiences and identities for the child of immigrants; communities of neighborhood and place, peers and education, class and status; gender roles and stereotypes across cultures and generations; and more. And it’s so consistently readable and engaging, funny and moving, that it’s very easy to get students into it and into all those questions as a result.
Cisneros is an individual author who no more represents all of Mexican American literature, in her own moment or more broadly, than any other individual could; so I highlight her central 1980s achievement not to suggest that she can stand in for a larger community, but rather as one part of a larger argument that we cannot understand or define our national literature over the past few decades without including in prominent roles many Mexican American writers. You can’t talk about late 20th and early 21st century American fiction without including Cisneros, Rudolfa Anaya, Ana Castillo, and many others; parallel poetry conversations would have to include Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gary Soto, M. Miriam Herrera, Alfred Arteaga, and more; recent national debates over identity, community, and education have been informed by no works more than the memoir and scholarly non-fiction contributions of Gloria Anzaldúa and Richard Rodriguez; playwrights such as Luis Valdez and Esteia Portillo Trambley helped change the possibilities for 20th century American drama; and the list goes on. And while the community of prominent Mexican American writers has exploded over these decades, an American Studier can and should go back into our literary history to appreciate the contributions of an earlier author like María Amparo Ruíz de Burton.
As the Mexican American student protests in Tucson—and the vibrant existence of the Mexican American Studies program in which they’re enrolled—reflect, however, perhaps the most exciting and important Mexican American influences are those that continue to unfold into our 21st century moment, community, and identity. Once again I could list numerous writers and artists whose voices and works exemplify those influences, but I’ll focus on just one: Luis Alberto Urrea. Urrea’s thirteen books to date span literary genres, time periods, styles, and themes, from his The Devil’s Highway (a Pulitzer Prize-finalist for nonfiction, and one of many Urrea books to narrates the stories and lives of contemporary Mexican American immigrants) to the historical novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter, collections of poetry such as The Fever of Being to his memoir Nobody’s Son: Notes from an American Life. Urrea is no more reducible to a single genre or literary voice as he is solely defined by his Mexican American heritage; instead, what he exemplifies is how much Mexican American writing and culture has become a central part of every aspect of our literary and national conversations and identities. To read his works is to read 21st century America, sin pregunta.
Next Mexican American Studies influence tomorrow,
PS. Any Mexican American authors or artists you’d highlight?
1/24 Memory Day nominee: Edith Wharton, the novelist and scholar who was the first American woman awarded the Pulitzer prize, who became a self-educated authority on topics as diverse as architecture and travel, and whose best works of fiction engage realistically with both social and psychological identity as well as any American writer.